Republicans licking chops at O'Malley-Ehrlich rematch
But former governor's No. 1 hurdle could be mathematics
ANNAPOLIS For Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., November will be all about the math.
The putative Republican gubernatorial nominee has to either convert about 30 percent of Democratic voters to select the minority party. Or, he has to ensure a high turnout with seven of 10 occasional voters casting ballots for Ehrlich.
Those are the views of political observers contemplating this year's governor's race now that Ehrlich has announced he wants his old job back.
"I think the key for Ehrlich is being able to replicate the one thing he did in 2002, and that one thing is that he got 30 percent of the Democratic vote on Election Day," said Patrick Gonzales, president of Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies of Annapolis.
Of Maryland's 3.4 million registered voters, more than 1.9 million or 57 percent are Democrats. The 902,000 Republicans account for 27 percent, while 479,000 unaffiliated voters represent about 14 percent.
"He can get 100 percent of independents, 100 percent of the Republicans, and if he only gets 15 percent of the Democrats, he loses," Gonzales said.
But the hitch to basing the campaign on snagging Democrats is money, said Donald Murphy, a lobbyist and former Republican lawmaker. It would take a lot of expensive advertising to convince a Democrat to vote Republican.
Instead, the campaign would need to go after "occasional" voters voters who usually avoid midterm elections.
"People who are pissed and don't vote in those midterm elections are coming out this time," Murphy said. They'll be more likely to vote Republican because the party is not in power, and Ehrlich might be able to draw 70 percent of them, he said.
"What they need to do is initiate a ground game like Republicans have never seen before, and use the infrastructure of these tea parties and so forth and motivate people to come to vote," Murphy said.
Ehrlich, 52, revealed to reporters Tuesday that he would enter the 2010 gubernatorial election in a bid to return to Government House. He is planning rallies in Rockville and Arbutus on Wednesday to kick off his campaign officially.
The Democratic Party on Thursday tried to portray Ehrlich as vulnerable with the tea party organizations, releasing a poll that showed 59 percent of Republicans likely to support Ehrlich. But once they heard statements about his spending as governor and his lobbying since leaving office, the number fell to 45 percent.
"If a primary opponent raises a little money and gets these messages out, [Ehrlich] could actually have a difficult time," said Isaac Salazar, communications director of the Maryland Democratic Party.
"This is where Brian Murphy, perhaps, or any other candidate who has resources could possibly give him some trouble, any real conservative candidate," Salazar said.
Murphy is a Chevy Chase Republican who is the principal in an investment company. He also is seeking the GOP nomination for governor.
"My issue is Governor O'Malley needs to be defeated next year. The Maryland GOP needs to capture the national trends that are leading away from career politicians," Murphy said. "Governor O'Malley cannot win and raise taxes in 2011. It will destroy the state."
The tea party movement, upset with President Barack Obama's health care reform and O'Malley's tax increases, may be ready to embrace Ehrlich, said Dave Schwartz, state director of Americans for Prosperity, a nonpartisan organization that serves as a clearinghouse for the movement.
"Probably a lot of the tea party folks will be popping up in the Ehrlich campaign apparatus," Schwartz said. "There might be tea party folks not excited about Ehrlich running; I haven't run into them yet."
The Republican Party is almost salivating about Ehrlich's candidacy.
"If anything, Ehrlich getting into the race is a benefit for everybody on the ticket. He brings a tremendous wealth of resources and experience with his campaign team," said Mike Pappas, who ended his own gubernatorial campaign in November.
He will be that "extra bit that galvanizes the party," he said.
Del. J.B. Jennings (R-Dist. 7) of Phoenix is running for his district's Senate seat. He takes "a rising tide lifts all boats" view of Ehrlich's announcement.
"By having him on the top of the ballot, it's worth $10 for every dollar a candidate has to spend," Jennings said.
He acknowledges that the political climate is one of the best opportunities Republicans will ever get, which puts the pressure on them more.
To Louis Pope, Maryland's Republican national committeeman, the party had high expectations before Ehrlich's announcement this week.
"Our goal is to bring Maryland back to a two-party state," Pope said. "Republicans are very anxious to vote. We'll have our numbers out there in full force."
"I think that for Republican candidates, having such a strong person at the top of the ticket can't help but benefit their chances," Senate Minority Leader Allan H. Kittleman said. "It will help candidates up and down the ticket."
In 2006, the Maryland Republican Party was so certain of Ehrlich's re-election that it revealed a "14/5" strategy to pick up 14 seats in the House of Delegates and five in the Senate. Instead, the GOP remained even in the Senate, and the Democrats picked up a net six seats in the House.
Kittleman offered few details, but he said a similar plan had been contemplated before Ehrlich's announcement.
"I think the people of Maryland want a change, and some of them have buyer's remorse," he said. "I think people in Maryland think it was a poor choice in 2006 and they're looking for the opportunity to fix that in 2010."
Neither Kittleman nor his counterpart, House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Dist. 29C) of Lusby, would reveal any details of their strategies for picking up seats.
But in a state so dominated by Democrats, will this chance come around again?
"I don't know if it's now or never," O'Donnell said, "but it certainly feels at this date that the forecast is for sunny weather and potentially a good crop."
Though Republicans feel they have reason to celebrate, pundits are mixed. Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia professor who leads the respected Center for Politics, had said in February that Ehrlich would defeat O'Malley had the election been held then. Now, he calls the election a toss-up.
The Cook Political Report had prognosticated that Maryland was "Solid D" for Democratic. Now it says the race only "Leans D."
Staff writers Sean R. Sedam and Alan Brody contributed to this report.